Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time

‘Mrs. Hopkins & Mr. Garrick in the Character of Queen Gertrude and Hamlet’, Late 18th century [1774?], via Folgerpedia

Source: Extracts from Walter Herries Pollock, ‘Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time’, Longman’s Magazine (August 1885), pp. 371-375, translated from two letters by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, originally published in German in the periodical Deutsches Museum, November 1776

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 2 and 12 December 1774

Text: Now, my dear B., if, after what I have told you, you have been able to picture a Garrick to yourself, follow me with him in one or two scenes. To-day, because I am somewhat in the humour for it, I will take the one out of Hamlet where the Ghost appears to him. You know this scene already from Mr. Partridge’s excellent description in Fielding. My description will not make the other superfluous, but only explain it.

Hamlet appears in black attire, the only one, alas, which is still worn in the whole court, for his poor father, who has been scarcely dead a couple of months. Horatio and Marcellus accompany him in uniform. They await the Ghost. Hamlet has folded his arms and pulled his hat over his eyes. It is a cold night, and just twelve o’clock. The theatre is darkened, and the whole audience as still and the faces as motionless as if they had been painted on the walls of the house. At the extreme end of the theatre one might have heard a pin drop. Suddenly as Hamlet goes rather far up the stage somewhat to the left, with his back to the audience, Horatio starts. “Look, my lord, it comes,” says he, pointing to the right where the Ghost is standing immovable, ere one is even aware of it. At these words Garrick turns suddenly round, and at the same moment staggers back two or three paces with trembling knees, his hat falls to the ground, both arms—especially the left—are nearly extended to the full, the hand as high as the head, the right arm more bent and the hand lower, the fingers spread out and the mouth open. There he remains standing, with legs far apart, but still in a graceful attitude, as if electrified, supported by his friends. His features express such horror that I felt a repeated shudder pass over me before he began to speak. The almost appalling silence of the assembly, which preceded this scene and made one feel scarcely safe in one’s seat, probably contributed not a little to the effect. At last he speaks, not with the beginning but with the end of a breath, and says in a trembling voice “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” words which complete whatever may yet be wanting in this scene to make it one of the sublimest and most terrifying of which, perhaps the stage is capable. The Ghost beckons him; then you should see him, with his eyes still fixed upon the Ghost, while yet speaking to his friends, break loose from them, although they warn him not to follow, and hold him fast. But at last, his patience exhausted, he faces them, and with great violence tears himself away, and, with a swiftness which makes one shudder draws his sword on them, saying, “By heavens, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.” Then, turning to the Ghost,’ he holds his sword out: “Go on; I’ll follow thee;” and the Ghost moves off. Hamlet remains standing still, his sword extended before him, to gain more distance; and when the audience have lost sight of the Ghost, he begins to follow him slowly, at times stopping, and then going on again, but always with his sword extended, his eyes fixed on the Ghost, with dishevelled hair and breathless, until he, too, is lost behind the scenes. You may easily imagine what loud applause accompanies this exit. It begins as soon as the Ghost moves off, and lasts until Hamlet likewise disappears.

… In the fine soliloquy, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt,” &c, Garrick is completely overpowered by the tears of just grief for a virtuous father, for whom a frivolous mother no longer wears mourning, nor even feels grief, at a time when every parasite of the court should still be wearing black—the most unrestrained of all tears, perhaps because they are the only alleviation which in such a struggle between one duty and another duty an honest heart can procure. Of the words, “so excellent a king,” the last word is quite inaudible; you only perceive it by the motion of the mouth, which closes immediately afterwards firmly, and trembling with agitation, as if to repress with his lips the only too clear indication of the grief which might unman him. This way of shedding tears, which shows the whole burden of inward grief, as well as the manly soul suffering under it, carries one irresistibly away. At the end of the soliloquy he mixes just anger with his grief; and once, when he strikes out violently with his arm to give emphasis to a word in his indignation, the word (to the surprise of the audience) remains unuttered, choked by emotion, and only follows after a few seconds, when tears begin to flow. My neighbour and I, who had not yet exchanged a word, looked at each other and spoke. It was irresistible.

… Hamlet, who, as I have already reminded you, is in mourning, appears here with thick, loosened hair, some of it hanging over one shoulder, he having already begun to play the madman; one of his black stockings is half-way down his leg, showing the white understocking, and a noose of red garter hangs down the middle of the calf. Thus attired, he steps slowly forward in deep thought, supporting his chin with his right hand, and the elbow of the right with the left, looking on one side on the ground in a dignified manner. Here, taking his right hand away from his chin, but, if I mistake not, still holding it supported by the left, he utters the words “To be or not to be” softly; but they are everywhere audible, on account of the great stillness, and not through the peculiar gift of the man, as some of the papers state.

I must here make a little observation on the text. In the fourth line of this soliloquy some propose reading “against assailing troubles” instead of “against a sea of troubles,” because arms cannot be taken against a sea. Mr. Garrick nevertheless says, “against a sea of troubles.”

The graveyard scene is suppressed at Drury Lane. At Covent Garden it is still kept. This suppression Garrick should not have introduced. Such a splendid old piece, with all its fine characteristic raw strength, would still in these mealy-mouthed times, when even the language of nature begins to give way to conventional babble, have broken the fall of it even if it had not been able to uphold it.

I must pass over some of the most beautiful scenes, among others that in which he instructs the actors, as well as that in which he thunders into his mother’s heart the comparison between his uncle and his father when the Ghost appears; one blow upon another before one has yet recovered.

Comments: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was a German physicist and philosopher. A keen Anglophile, he visited England in 1770 and over 1774-1775. His celebrated account of David Garrick‘s performance in Hamlet (original diary entries reveal that he saw the production on 2 and 12 December 1774) was written in two letters to his friend Heinrich Christian Boie in 1775 and originally published in Boie’s literary periodical Deutsches Museum in November 1776.

Links: Copy of English translation at Hathi Trust
Copy of German original at Hathi Trust